Called for These Times – The People of God community in Beirut
When the People of God community first began in Lebanon, its members did not know they were about to be plunged into a civil war that would decimate their country and threaten their lives. The encouragement they received from other Christian communities made it possible for the members of this community to stay in Lebanon and survive the 15-year war, helping to maintain hope and vision for the future. Now the community is playing an important role in revitalization of the local Catholic and Orthodox churches.
The People of God community in Lebanon traces its beginnings to August of 1969 when a young Lebanese university instructor encountered the Catholic charismatic renewal movement in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. As a result of his experience, a prayer group of university faculty and students started up in Beirut in mid-September of that year, when he returned home.
In 1974, the local parish run by Capuchin priests invited a French priest to preach during the Lenten season. He had recently experienced the Catholic charismatic renewal, and his preaching led to our expansion into parish life in Lebanon.
Life in the Spirit Seminars followed, and by the summer of 1975 the charismatic renewal movement was thriving in the Beirut area with many people attending the weekly prayer meetings that we hosted.
The war years in Lebanon
The wars in Lebanon erupted in April of 1975. The Lord had prepared us initially for this major upheaval and for the challenging years that were to follow. But the final preparation came when a group of us felt called by the Lord to leave Lebanon for a period beginning in October of 1975. Eighteen of us went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA, for a crucial period of bonding among ourselves and with The Word of God community located there. By April of 1976 we had firmly committed ourselves to God’s call to live a shared life as a community in taking a name, People of God. Our commitment together was formalized with a community covenant.
In the spring of 1976, we responded to the Lord’s invitation to return to Lebanon at what was perhaps the worst period of the wars in our land. For five months we continued to live together in a set of apartments in Beirut. The process of growing together as a people that had been in place for us during our stay in Ann Arbor went on to further maturity as we deepened our relationships, while ministering hope to people in the limited area we could reach because of the war.
September 1976 witnessed the next step in God’s careful plan to equip us for the years to come. We felt his call to come out of the enclosed area around the universities and into the broader area that had become the “Christian” heartland in Lebanon.
Public meetings and Life in the Spirit Seminars resumed at the parish church of the same Capuchin priest who had hosted us in 1974. With the shifting areas of political influence, the parish by 1976 was on the border of the Christian area. The number of people coming to our weekly prayer meetings increased rapidly, and in one year’s time we felt called to move more deeply into the heartland. This proved once again God’s careful shepherding, for soon after our peaceful move the border area became the scene of constant warfare. This new location has been the center of our activities ever since. A Maronite bishop was happy to let us take over his vacated family home, and in the recent past we purchased it from him, and now have with God’s grace built a permanent center for the charismatic renewal movement on that site.
An ecumenical people
The People of God is a multi-cultural, ecumenical community of some 800 adult members and their children. Members belong to Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches in Lebanon, including Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Maronites (Catholics), Greek Catholics, Syriac Catholics, Chaldean Catholics, and Catholic Copts.
Two main periods of community development
Two main periods are recognizable in God’s ongoing faithful providence for us.
1. Reliable foundations 1976-1989
The years between 1976 and 1989 were a period of establishing the People of God as a stable, growing community, along with building solid relations with local church authorities, and a period of expansion through prayer meetings (reaching 1200 attendance at one point in the war) and Life in the Spirit Seminars (attracting up to 600 for a single annual Life in the Spirit Seminar).
During this period, we also built some solid structures to serve the growing numbers of people who wanted to participate in the charismatic renewal movement. In 1986 we developed a “Movement of renewal in the Holy Spirit” (with the important help of the Ligaya ng Paginoon community from Manila, Philippines) to cater to the swelling numbers that could not be incorporated in the People of God community. All of this activity and expansion took place in the midst of constant and severe wartime circumstances. Indispensable to all this was our being a Christian community and not just a spiritual movement or prayer group.
2. Life-giving structures 1989 to the present
The second crucial phase – and vital to our survival long-term as a trans-generation community – saw a further development to put in place the necessary structures that would ensure our ability to go on beyond our early growth. The focus is on clearer structures and the fostering of strong personal relationships to support our ongoing expansion, both internally as a covenant community and externally in outreach movements.
Our contacts have continued with leaders of the various churches our community members belong to and are bearing good fruit (our work has been solidly ecumenical from the outset, reaching out to the eight or more Christian churches in Lebanon). We have been asked by bishops and groups to help with building communities in neighboring Arab countries such as Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, as well as in other countries such as the Holy Land, Turkey and Armenia, and in other parts of Lebanon. Our main leaders have also been called to serve internationally in building up the international Sword of the Spirit.
Our community outreach ministries include a family-based renewal movement (called “Living Hope”), three evangelistic outreach programs to university students (called “UCO”), a youth outreach program (called YOut), an outreach to young professionals (called “YPO”), a “Scouts” association, public prayer meetings in different regions of the country, and other ministries as well. Taken together they involve more than 3,000 people.
“It is for these times that I have called you.” We have heard this word throughout our life in community, but have been hearing it with greater urgency more recently. Thus every time there is are new war threats, we are not surprised. Rather we ask the Lord to continue to shepherd us and protect us from sin, faithlessness, and division, and that we might be an instrument in his hands that he wishes to use for these times.
The current situation has been particularly malicious, as the spiritual war rages beneath the external strife. A special pressure now is put on all young people to emigrate – this perhaps is the ugliest face of the current battle. Vying with it is the ever-present enemy of civil hatred and strife.
We invite you to join with us in praying that we play our part in remembering that our enemy in not “flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12) and that a deep love for and witness to our non-Christian fellow citizens be nurtured and maintained. Otherwise we lose our “saltiness” (Mark 9:50) and our clear call to be a “message” as a nation. The late Pope John Paul II, after he had visited Lebanon, said, “Lebanon is more than a nation – it is a message for the world.” That message entails Christians and Muslims living together as children of Abraham. I believe that this is possible only if Christians live out their true witness and avoid resentment, hatred, and prejudice.
From Living Bulwark, June/July 2016, used with permission.